Naypyitaw, 29 May 2012. One million people are said to live in Myanmar’s capital city, but you would never guess from its vast emptiness that its population is almost the same as that of Tiruchi in Tamil Nadu.
Almost all Ministries have completed the shift to this new city that the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s Army, quietly began constructing in 2002, and inaugurated four years later as the new capital.
Since then, Naypyitaw, which means royal city, has got itself a couple of plazas that sell cheap imports and have theatres screening Chinese, Thai, and Hollywood movies.
But save for these and a couple of market squares with shops and stalls that hawk vegetables and groceries, cloth, medicines and hardware – one boasts a spa and a spectacles shop called American Vision – there is little sign of urban civic life in this strikingly un-peopled city.
Currently, even the government apartments – with different coloured roofs for single and family housing, apartments for the military and senior officials – have none of the usual markers of residential neighbourhoods, such as clothes hung out to dry, kids playing or parked vehicles.
The trees, recently planted, are yet to attain their full height, and the sparse vegetation gives no sign that several decades ago, this was a thick teak forest.
It was to this city that Air India One jetted in on Sunday with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his entourage, as he began his visit to Myanmar. As he was driven to the hotel, flag-waving children had strung themselves out near the approach to welcome him. The capital has only one high school.
On Monday morning, Dr. Singh was driven for his meeting with President Thein Sein in a motorcade on a sweeping 20-lane road that can double up as a runway, and has been quite likely designed for that dual-purpose.
Naypyitaw’s concretised roads, with a minimum of eight lanes, and increasing according to the zone — those in the government zone are the widest — are a drag racer’s dream come true: wide, smooth and barely a vehicle in sight. Policemen blocked the roads during the motorcade, but they might as well haven’t taken the trouble — at each block, there were just a couple of motorcyclists or mopeds, and at one, there was no vehicle at all.
The Presidential Palace is apparently the centrepiece of a capital that has no centre beside it. No one knows how much, but the Tatmadaw must have poured billions into its construction and that of the nearby parliament buildings. In the vastness and isolation of the setting, the fantasyland-like architecture seems designed to overwhelm.
The city boasts a dedicated hotel zone that has no less than 11 hotels, and another under-construction hotel zone, but it is still a destination only for official delegations or foreign businessmen who have dealings with the government. Foreign tourists need a permit to visit the city, and until recently, even Myanmarese from different places needed permits to visit the capital.
In any case, there is nothing much yet to see in Naypyitaw. Locals suggest a recently constructed replica of Yangon’s Shwedagon pagoda — the height of the spire one metre less than the original — as a sightseeing possibility.
Five white elephants are being reared by the temple. For the kings of Burma, albino elephants were a symbol of their strength and endurance. If the animals are at all associated with a more recent meaning, no one is talking of that.
The Tatmadaw never gave a reason for shifting the capital from Yangon, 320 km to the south, a city of six million people that is culturally, economically and politically alive, despite the years of international isolation.
But when it happened, people cited a few possibilities: the Army feared a western military offensive on Yangon; the superstitious brass of the junta made the decision on the basis of astrological advice; and it wanted to move the seat of government to a location where opposition protests would never have the paralysing effect as in the politically-charged urbanscape of Yangon.
While it may still take years for the emptiness to fill up, the shift now seems irreversible. Private property developers are building grand villas in the city and offering them as investments for the future.
Even the Opposition apparently accepts the shift. During her reconciliation talks with the Myanmar government, Aung San Suu Kyi, the chairperson of the National League for Democracy, travelled to Naypyitaw to meet President Thein Sein. She recently came here again from her home in Yangon, to be sworn in as a Member of Parliament, and stayed at the hotel where Prime Minister Singh is a state guest.
For Dr. Singh to stay two nights in this city and touch down for barely a few hours in Yangon on Tuesday to meet the pro-democracy leader is yet another iteration of the message that New Delhi has repeatedly sought to send: it is here to build on its engagement with the rulers of Myanmar, irrespective of who they are, and while welcoming Ms. Suu Kyi’s participation in the country’s political process, India isn’t here to dictate the pace of political reforms.